More than 60 years since Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, launched into low Earth orbit, thousands of space launches have taken place. And they’ve littered the heavens with spent satellites, broken rocket parts and other junk.
Such abandoned fragments are one of the biggest threats to spacecraft, says the European Space Agency. According to the latest data, there are about 5,000 satellites in space. More than 3,000 of these are no longer operational. Break-ups, explosions and collisions mean that about 34,000 pieces of debris longer than 10 cm, 900,000 between 1 cm and 10 cm, and 128 million between 1 mm and 1 cm are estimated to be in orbit. As these bits hurtle across space at speeds of nearly 29,000 km per hour, they can cause lethal damage. A marble-sized piece of debris can shatter an entire satellite.
While ground-based systems have tried to identify and monitor the trajectories of such clutter, they are only able to track objects bigger than 10 cm in size. One Indian startup is trying to change that. Bengaluru-based Digantara, founded by three 20-somethings, is looking to track space debris from space itself and it’s one of the handful of companies in the world doing so.
The team’s patented in-orbit space debris monitor, as they call it, combines hardware with a software solution. The hardware, attached to a nano satellite that will go into space, has a laser module that can track objects between 1 cm and 20 cm in size. The data is relayed to Earth and processed to predict the future trajectory of the object. “That’s where the software stack comes in… we build a visualisation model of all the objects we have tracked and form a catalogue,” says Anirudh Sharma, 22, Digantara’s co-founder and CEO.
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